Intimacy in a couple and in a couples counselling setting
To know when to go away and when to come close is the key to any lasting relationship (Doménico Cieri Estrada)
When a relationship is going through some difficulties and communication between partners seems to be slowly breaking down, one of the issues that often emerges is the lack of intimacy – “There’s no intimacy between us”, “I can’t remember the last time we were intimate”, “I miss the intimacy we once had”. But what does it really mean to be intimate? What does intimacy entail within a couple system? In this short paper, I would like to share with you some reflections on the essence of intimacy and suggest how therapy may help a couple find new ways of reviving it.
What is intimacy?
According to its etymology, “intimacy” derives from the Latin word Interus-Intra (“inward”) and it means “innermost”, “that which is most inward”. What the word seems to point at is the core of something, its innermost reality. Within the psychology of the individual and the couple, we could then say that “intimacy” concerns and evokes the innermost recesses within the psyche, a connection/relatedness with the most secret and sacred psychic space. In other words, it implies being in the proximity of the core of one’s being, the True Self (Winnicott, 1975). In intimacy, we allow ourselves to be seen for who we really are, in our utter "nakedness".
Following this line of thought, it could be said that intimacy for the individual is the capacity to be close and relate to one's own True Self, to be able to stand that nakedness that the True Self requires. In other words, it is the capacity to be honest and open with oneself and welcome with acceptance the different sides of one's own inner reality, including those aspects that are not liked because they are uncomfortable and therefore pushed out of consciousness – the Shadow (Jung, 1971). Clearly, this intimacy can elicit a particular kind of ambivalence. On the one hand it attracts us, because it tells us of our innermost desires and needs. On the other hand, it frightens us because it forces us against those aspects of ourselves we find uncomfortable, threatening the way we have learnt to perceive ourselves, i.e. our False Self (Winnicott, 1975).
Just to give a rather simplified example, let’s imagine a man, Andrew, who very often puts other people’s needs in front of his – his wife’s, his children’s, his parents’, his boss’s. This is his pattern in life. Andrew is aware that something within him is not quite right, there’s a sense of discomfort and discontent. Were he to open up to his innermost needs and desires, he might discover that he needs to have a bit more time and space for himself in his life in order to feel more content. This need would require him to learn to say “no” to others more often. Yet, saying “no” is not an option he normally allows himself, as it is something that he has learnt to consider as “selfish” and that goes against the general idea he has of himself as a “generous and altruistic man”. Being intimate with himself, therefore, exposes both his needs (“I need time for myself”) and fears (“I don’t want to be seen as selfish”). In order to save his idea of “generous person”, he will probably carry on saying “yes” indiscriminately and avoid openness to his innermost needs and his so-called “selfish” (self-preserving?) side. As we can see, then, intimacy can be undermined by the defences of the False Self aimed at keeping the status quo and the image one has created for oneself.
Within this perspective, intimacy in a couple could be described as the private space co-created by partners where they reveal the nakedness and vulnerability of their True Self to each other, in the hope to be received with love and acceptance. Again, this exposure creates ambivalence. The disclosure of the intimate (True) Self to another in fact reveals not only repressed desires and needs towards that Other, but also old fears and anxieties, which have their roots in one’s own history of early relationships and attachments. Partners are fascinated by the redemption intimacy promises (“I will be loved for who I really am”, “My vulnerabilities will be accepted”, etc) and yet are scared by the danger it implies (“Will I be rejected if I show this side of me?”, “Will I become dependent and lose control?”, etc).Therefore, when intimacy gets constellated within a couple, partners regress temporarily and old wounds resurface, bringing with them both old hopes and conflicts looking for a resolution. If there is a disruption in intimacy and the perceived level of danger increases (for example, “I am showing a vulnerable/uncomfortable part of me and this aspect is not being accepted”), the False Self activates its defences and old patterns of relating get re-enacted (for example “I don’t need anyone”, “I’m better than you”, etc) while the True Self goes into hiding - “[w]hen love is not forthcoming or there is a feeling of being judged and shamed, defences go up to protect the vulnerable self” (Solomon, 1989: 41) . These defences have their roots in the personality type of the each partner and will also depend on their attachment styles. In this light, a chronic deterioration of intimacy occurs when default defences created by the False Self get activated more and more frequently, leaving no space for healing and transformation through contact with the True Self.
Yet, partners choose each other unconsciously not “to recreate and perpetuate unhappy early relationships” (Solomon, 1989: 40) as it may sometimes seem, but because they are attracted by the transformative dynamics of the relationship. It is within the co-created space of intimacy that this opportunity for transformation can be constellated, i.e. in those moments when partners expose the vulnerability of their True Self to each other and receive it with love and acceptance. Within that space, partners can slowly heal old wounds and start owning back and integrating parts of their Shadow long kept hidden by the False Self. Clearly, intimacy is not an absolute state or a goal that can be reached once and for all, but rather it is a space that can be accessed occasionally. A blissful state of perennial acceptance is, after all, unrealistic (Hollis, 1998; Johnson, 1998). As Solomon explains, “[i]ntimacy occurs when [...] needs can be met occasionally and reciprocally” (1989: 26). All can be hoped for, then, is for partners to be willing to share that intimate space as often as possible.
Intimacy in a couple and in therapy
I will now describe an imaginary couple and their dynamics - I will call them Oliver and Emily. Clearly, these two characters are a bit of a caricature. The idea behind this example is just to give a brief and simplified description of how intimacy between two people can easily deteriorate.
Oliver and Emily have been in a relationship for 3 years. In the relationship, Emily assumes the so-called minimiser position (Hendrix, 1997). In other words, she tends to withhold feelings and thoughts and diminish emotions. For instance, when Oliver asks her how she is doing, even when she looks visibly angry or sad, she always replies she’s “fine” and that nothing is wrong with her. Out of fear of dependency, she hides her most intimate needs, even to herself. Her slight eating problems seem to confirm a difficulty in contacting her true inner appetites. She likes to keep herself to herself and she doesn’t even answer her telephone, unless she knows someone will be calling. Emily and Oliver don’t live in the same town and, even if she loves him very much, the idea of Oliver living closer fills her with anxiety. She avoids arguments at all costs, and whenever Oliver expresses frustration, she retreats in herself or leaves. Oliver’s temperament is instead more of the maximiser type (Hendrix, 1997). He tends to let feelings out and usually in an exaggerated way. In front of Emily’s impenetrable attitude, he becomes more and more frustrated and clingy. He often assumes the role of the initiator in the relationship, also in bed, ending up feeling unloved and unwanted. He can be rather aggressive in his behaviour and doesn’t shy away from conflict.
Intimacy between Oliver and Emily has deteriorated over time because both partners feel more and more unwelcomed by each other and defences have increased. Oliver has started hiding his vulnerabilities – his fears and needs – because he feels he is not being seen or heard. He has retreated more and more in the position of “I’m fine, you’re not”. His defence mechanism is to come across as strong and balanced, and he places the blame of the relationship problems onto Emily. Therefore, Emily has to carry the burden of Oliver’s feelings of being unloved and worthless – this means that she feels unloved and worthless, but part of these feelings she’s carrying are Oliver’s too. As for Emily, she has gone even more into hiding because she feels diminished and not accepted for who she is. Her default defence of withholding and avoidance has increased so that she can feel more powerful and independent, i.e. less vulnerable (Hollis, 1998). Oliver, therefore, has found himself having to hold feelings of powerlessness and abandonment. The relationship between Oliver and Emily has got slowly stuck in a cycle of avoidance and frustration and communication is sadly breaking down more and more.
It is in cases like this that couple therapy could help encourage greater intimacy between the partners and help them transform the downward spiral. With this particular couple, for instance, the neutrality of the therapy setting could slowly restore a sense of safety, where both partners would find more space to reveal their True Self without the fear of being blamed or shamed. By using specific techniques and exercises, partners could also step into each other’s shoes and learn more about each other’s anxieties and hopes. This opening up in a safe and contained environment would constellate intimacy because the partners would feel more appreciated and heard in the relationship. Working with their family of origin, could also help our Oliver and Emily become more aware of and share old fears and anxieties that they bring in their relationship. Again, if welcomed with acceptance and understanding, the intimacy of these moments could facilitate empathy and healing. Furthermore, these opportunities of transformation through intimacy could be grounded with practical exercises too.
Healing happens over time and, as it is the case in the relationship between a maximiser and a minimiser, the aim would be for Emily to increase her capacity to stay when she wants to run away and for Oliver to increase his capacity to contain his emotional outpours. By slowly absorbing the safety and trust established in the therapeutic setting and by replicating it outside, their capacity for entering a shared intimate space would increase. Within that intimacy, that willingness to acknowledge and share their hopes, needs and anxieties, old patterns would hopefully shift and transformation and healing would take place. Emily would slowly feel that it is perfectly acceptable to have needs and occasionally depend on someone else and Oliver would feel that it is perfectly acceptable to make mistakes and be vulnerable.
Intimacy is at the core of every relationship. It is that space co-created by partners that allows them to let down their guard and look at the pain and the possibilities for growth lying within themselves. It is based on the courage and willingness to stand naked in front of the other and on the acceptance and respect by the other of that nakedness. When ruptures in intimacy reach critical point, couples therapy can provide a safe and neutral space where partners can meet and start sharing again the precious gifts hidden in the most sacred corners of their psyche.
Hendrix, H. (1997). Keeping the Love You Find: A Personal Guide. New York: Pocket
Hollis, J. (1998) The Eden Project: In search of the Magical Other. Toronto, Inner City Books.
Johnson, R.A. (1998) We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. San Francisco, Harper.
Jung, C.G. (1971)Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Volume IX part 2 in Hull, R.F.C. (trans), Read, H., Fordham, M., Adler, G., McGuire, W. (eds) The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. London, Routledge.
Solomon, M.F. (1989) Narcissism and Intimacy: Love and Marriage in an Age of Confusion. London/New York, W.W. Norton & Co Inc.
Winnicott, D.W. (1975) Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis. London, Hogarth Press.